On the Road with Robert Adams and Mathieu Pernot, at Jeu de Paume
(Paris.) Our Parents, Our Children. Along, Some Rivers. Eden, Colorado. From the Missouri West. Cotton Woods. - What sounds like country songs, are the titles of Robert Adams’ photo series. And it’s indeed a good idea to load some Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash onto your iPod before visiting the retrospective at Jeu de Paume.
Just like country melodies, the series of Robert Adams feel all the same. Since the 1950s, he takes monochrome images of a land, where man is man, woman is woman, the water Bourbon and every pickup truck a reincarnated horse. Robert Adams knows his country, and he knows how to highlight its rough beauty. (“They’s purty pitchers. Grampa took this here lan’ a the Injuns.”, John Steinbeck would have said).
The monotony, of course, is a deliberate choice: Robert Adams is catalogued as his country’s chronicler and critic. He is said to report changes, and damages, done to the land.
But most of all, his images form a counterpoint to the hectic American Way of Life, they show the stoic grandeur of a landscape where human civilisation is but a random passer-by.
Hills, trees, roads, farms, a church, roads, trees, hills, a creek. The enormity of the land swallows up all human activity. Interiors appear somehow unimportant, futile existences that the dust will soon wash away. It’s apparently not what he wants to express, but in Robert Adams' photos no change can truly change a thing; no matter what happens, the land won’t care. Comfort and optimism lie in this thought.
When Robert Adams travelled to California, it wasn’t to pick oranges but photos of the sea. These at least show some variation in his work. But the context is never lost. Those are the pacific waves the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West never was to see.
And finally, in the very last room, hidden where many visitors won't ever arrive, the Jeu de Paume put something else. In 2004, Robert Adams documented Iraq War protests in Oregon; after all, he’s not a redneck Marine, but the photographer version of Willie Nelson. The second surprise are close-up details of a Bodhisattva statue he probably found in a mid-Western antique shop. Maybe the Buddhist Saint greeted him with a hearty:
The journey continues with another show downstairs. Prairie schooners and trailer parks are not unknown to Mathieu Pernot, too. The artist shows documentary scenes and portraits of European Gipsies whose life he shared between the Black Sea and Andalusia. This is much like what Bertille Bak showed about a year ago at the MAMVP (Musée d’art modern de la ville de Paris), we don’t know if they ever met on the road.
For Mathieu Pernot, it all started almost twenty years ago with Gipsy children that he put into Photo Booths at the Arles train station. These portraits inevitably hint at police files, and they were indeed needed by the families for official documents. On the children followed adults; photographs from a culture that in most European countries is as omnipresent as unknown by the majorities.
Mathieu Pernot’s images from empty prison spaces – no cells, but exercise yards - show places of absolute surveillance (a sort of real-life internet, so to say). The detainees’ views are directed by metal bars and grids to fix on a insuperable wall. Is it harsh to say, many of the people Pernot portrayed will have made the experience first-hand?
The historical perspective comes with a series of so-called “anthropometric portraits” from 1944. Taken by the authorities in Nazi-occupied/collaborating France, they show people interned in A Bohemian Camp. Sixty years later, Mathieu Pernot met survivors and compares their images of past and present. Furthermore tracing on paper their last travels before the arrest, he creates abstract drawings. Pernot seeks to honour victims who are easily forgotten.
Gipsy travellers, empty prisons, those works have to be seen in a wider context, and Jeu de Paume gives us the chance to understand what really matters to the photographer.
For Implosions, he documented collapsing buildings, for Windows it's views from the inside of ruins, and The Migrants show homeless people sleeping in “body bags”. They appear as dehumanised, sculptural, abstract forms, which is quite like how they are treated everyday; only in death they become living beings again.
What we called a “body bag” might also recall a burka, but there are no details given on who these “migrants” are. Perhaps Afghans as in another work, for which Pernot asked two refugees to write down the story of their journey from Kabul to Paris.
What really matters to Matthieu Pernot is the absence of a home.
Here are people who don’t live anywhere precise, who are constantly on the move, and buildings where people have long left or are compelled to live. He shows non-architecture, a presence of and in absence.
One last exhibition is left: Slovenian artist Nika Autor shows a video on the fate of Slava Klarova, a communist resistant in Second World War Yugoslavia who was murdered by the German occupants. Whilst state propaganda during the Cold War honoured Tito’s comrades excessively, they are largely forgotten today. This journey through the time has obviously some points in common with Mathieu Pernot’s work on camp survivors. The film further focuses on the city of Maribor, where ArcelorMittal, the Indian owner of a mine using slave labour in the 1940s, now hardly accords twenty minutes to a memorial event. In this context, Nika Autor mentions Anish Kapoor’s London Orbit that the same company sponsored with many million pounds. She’s still a young artist with much idealist naivety and maybe a bit less understanding of marketing principles.
Leaving the Jeu de Paume, a group of teenage gipsies play their usual game with tourists. Feigning to be deaf and dumb, they collect signatures on meaningless petitions as a pretext to beg for money (or to help themselves to a wallet, as is the sad truth, too). These are the same faces we’ve just seen in Mathieu Pernot’s photos, and yet most of us will prefer the distance of art to reality. Art glorifies what reality condemns, and as often, the truth hides somewhere in between.
Robert Adams: The Place We Live; Mathieu Pernot: The Crossing; Nika Autor: Newsreel - The News is Ours; 10 February-18 May 2014, Jeu de Paume